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The Dinner Bell and Other Ethical Dilemmas

Ethics police are baking up a list of things they want changed or clarified by the Texas Legislature next year, and in the meantime, it has become dangerous for lobbyists to split the tab on officeholder meals and gifts.

Ethics police are baking up a list of things they want changed or clarified by the Texas Legislature next year, and in the meantime, it has become dangerous for lobbyists to split the tab on officeholder meals and gifts.

Lobbyists who feed officeholders are rechecking their accounting systems after state ethics cops clarified their position on how those things are reported.

There's a limit on what you can spend on a lawmaker's meal. And there are two readings of that law. The folks at the Texas Ethics Commission haven't issued a formal opinion, but their views have crept into print: Lobbyists can't avoid detailed reports on what they spend on lawmakers by splitting the tab. If you ask around the lobby, you'll find plenty of folks who've been doing just that. And part of the reason was that the ethics folks had never written down their opinion. The difference in interpretation was allowed to fester.

Now there's a set of proposed ethics law tune-ups floating around — Ethics Commissioner Ross Fischer is heading a task force on that subject — and a proposal to clear up the ticket-splitting law is in the package. That's what prompted the written comments from TEC staffers, and that, in turn, prompted a warning to the lobster community from the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobby group/trade association for lobbyists. They had been relying on another commission rule that said a lobbyist "is not required to report a lobby expenditure attributable to more than one person if another registrant has reported the expenditure."

The way the Ethics folks see it, the expenditures should be fully reported by everybody involved. When the staff position made it into print in the proposed rules, PAAT lit the signal fires.

That's one bit in a list of proposed changes in state ethics law that the commission might propose for the next legislative session. They'll look at the drafts at their next meeting — September 21-22 — and will vote, probably, at their November meeting on what to seek from the Lege in the form of new and changed laws and rules. Most of it's not headline-worthy, but it's the sort of workaday stuff that can get people in trouble if the rules aren't clear.

As it sits, they've proposed:

• Requiring state officials to report the value of gifts received. This would include checks, like those given to Employee Retirement System Board member Bill Ceverha by Houston homebuilder Bob Perry. TEC's reading of current law was that he had report receiving checks but didn't have to report the amounts. The two men voluntarily disclosed — after a mess of publicity — that the two checks totaled $100,000.

• Reporting of referrals and referral fees by lawmakers and other officeholders. The commission thinks the current reporting law is vague and unenforceable and they've suggested requiring state officials to report dates, names of referring parties, descriptions of cases involved, percentage of fee paid or received.

• Clarifying (they don't say how) the use of corporate money for the administrative expenses of a political action committee.

• Exempting media from laws governing political activities by corporations (mirroring federal law) so they don't have to report spending on political stories, editorials and other news coverage or commentary.

• Clearing up whether people who file complaints at the Ethics Commission can appeal decisions to the courts, or whether only the person being complained about can do that.

• Asking whether the commission should be allowed to disclose information in sworn complaints if the parties involved waive confidentiality.

• Excluding email from the definitions of political advertising.

• Making an individual responsible when legislative caucuses don't file reports or file them incorrectly.

• Allowing penalties when "telegram" reports due in the last days of campaigns are filed late.

• Changing the deadlines on ethics reports to the date they're received instead of the date they're postmarked.

The Modern Smoke-Filled Room

Republican precinct chairs from all over CD-22 — that's the Tom DeLay district — were, as we went to press, lining up the potential write-in candidates Thursday night at Pearland's First Baptist Church. The plan was to grill them and then conduct a straw poll to send out word on the Party Favorite. They were restricting entry to party folk from the four counties in the district, members of the state GOP, and elected officials. Each of the candidates hoping to win the group's seal of approval gets to bring up to five family members, surrogates and staffers. And they were getting a significant amount of blowback from within and without. Fort Bend County Chairman Gary Gillen opposed the idea and said he wouldn't go. Harris County Chairman Jared Woodfill and Texas GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser wanted the party to line up behind one and only one candidate. One candidate bowed out of the race, another out of the event. Unity ain't easy, and even if the Republicans do line up behind one candidate, they're attempting a truly rare thing: According to our volunteer correspondents, only four people in U.S. history have made it into Congress as write-in candidates. And that was when people voted with pencils. Now they have to dial up a candidate's name letter by letter on an electronic voting machine.

Family Feud

While the circular firing squad was being assembled to fight over personalities in CD-22, the guy who lost the race for Texas GOP vice chairman was taking broadsides at the folks in charge. He wasn't alone: The former head of Harris County's GOP was even more critical.

Gary Polland, who now writes the Texas Conservative Review and who used to head the Harris County Republicans, says the big mistake by the Party was moving the Tom DeLay ballot case from the state courts — where Democrats first filed it — to the federal courts. His take: "The RPT simply invited the federal government to intervene on a matter of state law. Not only was this a foolish move — it was decidedly not conservative."

Bobby Eberle, who runs a conservative news service called GOPUSA, put the blame for the CD-22 circus on the state party. The Democrats, he writes, might get the seat as a result: "The congressional seat of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay is now in jeopardy thanks in part to a failure in leadership from party officials." He contends they fumbled the ball when they tried to get DeLay off the ballot and replaced with another Republican, that they bungled the legal case that followed that mistake, and that their efforts to get everyone behind a single write-in candidate are futile. Eberle, who lost the vice chairman's race earlier this summer to Robin Armstrong, ended with a call for leadership.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, whose name had been promoted as a write-in, doesn't want to play. In a statement, he jumped clear of the whole thing: "I want to make clear that I am neither a write-in candidate nor a prospective one despite the well-intentioned draft movement within the Party."

Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, who's paid his fees to the state and will thus be a bona fide write-in candidate, wasn't planning to attend the meet-up. He'll be in the hunt whether the straw-pollers like him or not. Tim Turner, a former State Republican Executive Committee member, is a potential candidate, as is Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs.

Other than Wallace, only Don Richardson of Houston has jumped through the hoops to get on the ballot as a write-in. That's important for at least two reasons: Certified write-ins get their votes counted (which is why Alfred E. Neuman isn't president) and their names are displayed in each polling place and in each voting booth.

Adds and Drops

Solomon Ortiz Jr. — son of the congressman from Corpus Christi — will take Vilma Luna's place on the November ballot. Luna resigned from the race, and from the Legislature, to take a lobby job in Austin. Ortiz, formerly the county's Democratic Party chairman, didn't have Luna's blessing — she stayed out of the replacement race — but got the nod of Eddie Cavazos, who preceded Luna in the House. He also had endorsements from 10 sitting House members, for whatever that was worth. The vote was tight: Ortiz won 23-20 over Danny Noyola Sr. The timing of the Luna resignation freed the Republicans — who weren't running a candidate — to name their own contestant for the now-open seat. Their party bosses voted 14-6 for former County Commissioner Joe McComb. He beat Raul Torres for that nomination.

• Republican Ben Bentzin, who lost a 15-point race to Democrat Donna Howard in last spring's special election in HD-48, dropped out of the November race. He told the Austin American-Statesman that the first round had been too hard on his family. Republican Todd Baxter won the seat by a few dozen votes two years ago. He quit late last year to take a job lobbying for cable television. It's a Republican district on paper, but Bentzin's campaign never really got traction last spring, and has been subterranean since then. Howard still will face Libertarian Ben Easton in November, but Bentzin's timing — and the fact that he's not disqualified for moving or illness — prevents the GOP from replacing him on the ballot.

• Dr. Henry Boehm Jr., who unintentionally (and narrowly) won the Democratic primary in SD-18, is officially pulling his name off the November ballot, leaving state Rep. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy and Libertarian Roy Wright II as the only contestants. Boehm tried to take his name off the ballot before the primary. He couldn't, so he didn't campaign. He won anyhow, and then said he wouldn't campaign for the general election. Now he's written a letter to Secretary of State Roger Williams, withdrawing. He cited his medical practice, recent surgeries of a business associate and of his son, and his other activities. He's all the way out of it.

Hegar beat two other Republicans to get out of his March primary. If he beats Wright — and no Libertarian has won a Senate race in Texas so far — he'll succeed Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, who didn't seek reelection.

That's Special

So far, three of the five Texas members of Congress who'll face special elections in November have filed. They've got a few more days to sign up. U.S. Reps. Ruben Hinojosa, Lloyd Doggett, and Lamar Smith are in. So, too, is perennial candidate Gene Kelly of Universal City, who has run for office so many times they should comp his filing fee or give him free drink coupons and extra time on his video rentals.

Henry Cuellar and Henry Bonilla could each get opposition, but they and their opponents haven't signed up with the Texas Secretary of State yet. Cuellar's waiting to see what a couple of tire-kickers will do; some Democrats in Hidalgo County want a local candidate to run against Cuellar, who's from Laredo. Bonilla, R-San Antonio, will likely face former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio (who lost a close election to Cuellar after the votes were recounted) and Rick Bolaños, an El Paso Democrat who was set to challenge Bonilla before the courts redrew the district and set up the special elections.

The five districts were redrawn by federal judges fixing legal problems with the state's congressional districts. They threw out the results of the primaries and set a special election for the November general election date. Anything not settled that day in the special elections will go to a runoff (general election races held the same day are won by the highest vote-getter, whether they get 50 percent of the votes or not).

A Little Traveling Music

Now there are two U.S. Senate candidates on the road.

Kay Bailey Hutchison hit the sticks with a three-day bus tour, repeating a travel trick she's used in past elections. This one takes the Republican U.S. senator through big and small media markets with easy-listening headlines along the way. She started in McKinney and made stops in East Texas spots like Tyler, Mineola, Marshall, and then on into Central Texas.

That's her first real foray of the campaign season. Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston attorney, has been barnstorming the state for months trying to build support for her challenge to Hutchison. Radnofsky is taking a federal angle on the Trans Texas Corridor, knocking Hutchison's votes on transportation bills and joining Texas pols — independents and Democrats, mainly — who've been railing against the proposals. The Democrat's riff sounds almost Strayhornesque; she refers to the project as "land-grabbing, triple-taxing, [and] community ruining." And the two are squabbling over the war in Iraq. Hutchison wants to stay the course; Radnofsky wants to set up a schedule for withdrawal. Want details? The Democrat's ready to bury you: She's posted a 38-page "issues chart" on her website.

More Traveling Music

A tough year for the GOP and a shot across the bow on transportation.

Kay Bailey Hutchison's stump speech starts with a warning that Republicans "have had a real hard time this year" and will have a tough time in the elections. She wants to continue tax cuts, opposes calls for a deadline and withdrawal from Iraq, says the federal government is cutting its deficit, and is making a pitch for alternative fuels, wind energy generation, and more nuclear plants. She said after a speech to the Texas Association of Counties that Congress will take up immigration before the end of the year, and argued that her guest worker program can't be fairly called an amnesty program.

She also told a group of reporters that she's against toll roads where roads already exist, and said she's got reservations about Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor proposal. Both have been major topics in Barbara Ann Radnofsky's speeches of late. "I'm not saying I'm against another route for bypassing the major, clogged freeways that we have," Hutchison said. "Interstate 35 is a parking lot. But I think that going too far outside of the major metropolitan areas is an issue that should be resolved."

Hutchison said she's wary of big road projects and the "taking of property" they entail. The TTC proposal would eventually connect major points in the state with quarter-mile-wide corridors that include roads, railways, pipelines and utility easements. A series of hearings around the state has stirred opposition from property owners. Candidates in several races have made those hearings regular campaign stops. They've been noisy and passionate; whether the issue translates into something meaningful for Election Day isn't yet clear.

Senate Snapshot

The poll of the minute has U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison leading Democratic challenger Barbara Ann Radnofsky by 30 points.

Rasmussen Reports has the Republican at 61 percent and Radnofsky at 31 percent. That's a survey of 500 voters done August 3. Hutchison's better known than her opponent, and has higher favorable ratings with voters (43 percent vs. 8 percent). A July poll by Rasmussen had Hutchison ahead by 27 percentage points.

Securing the Border, Politically

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell picked up endorsements from two dozen South Texas officials, a group that includes some state legislators, city and county officials.

The mayors include Silvestre Garcia of Combes, Joe Hernandez of San Benito, Billy Leo of La Joya, Ruben Ochoa of Santa Rosa, John David Osborn of Primera, Lalo Sosa of La Feria, Eddie Trevino of Brownsville, and David Winstead of Los Fresnos. And he picked up some Cameron County officials: District Clerk Aurora De La Garza, Commissioner Pete Benavidez, and Constables Saul Ochoa and Merced Burnias

That's generally Democratic turf, but some local officials have gone with other candidates. Republican Rick Perry announced endorsements from a group of mayors a couple of weeks ago, and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is backing Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Cities & Counties

We have a hunch that, with lawmakers looking at appraisal caps and revenue caps for local governments, we'll be seeing a lot of press releases with the dual seals of the Texas Association of Counties and the Texas Municipal League. For now, though, they're in a different songbook. The two organizations awarded Parker County and the City of Weatherford for a joint special crimes unit, and Burleson County and the City of Somerville for a joint health resource center. Those projects saved money and can be exported to other places.

The other business — the noisy stuff about new rules from the state — could start quickly. Gov. Rick Perry is putting together a citizen panel on property taxes and caps. Caps give the local governments hives, but state lawmakers have been talking for several years about limits on the growth of property appraisals and/or limits on growth in local government revenues. Under most plans, local voters would be able to approve higher growth if they found it necessary.

The local governments say it's unfair for state officials to force mandated programs and costs onto their budgets and then to limit their ability to pay for those things. They say local officials are already accountable to their voters and don't need instructions from Austin. And they point out that state lawmakers impose no such limits on themselves, either on taxes or on revenues.

Defensive Driving for Lobsters

The lobby lobby's annual seminar is next month, featuring seminars on how to act while trying to sell lawmakers on a particular position or bit of legislation.

The Professional Advocacy Association of Texas' Ethics Compliance Institute is on Friday, September 15 in Austin, and lawyers get CLE credit. They and everybody else gets the latest on how to go about the business of lobbying without running afoul of the state's ethics laws and various legal interpretations of the rules. They're starting off with the Abramoff scandal (it's titled "The Seven Stages of Grief"), clicking through Texas rules, legislative tricks, law, litigation and all that. The keynote speaker is U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose district includes the Pink Building in downtown Austin. Get details at their website.

Political People and Their Moves

Chris Traylor — the chief of staff at the state's Health and Human Services Commission — moves to associate commissioner of Medicaid and CHIP. Traylor will replace David Balland; the chief of staff job is open for the moment.

Texas Tech has narrowed the list of candidates for chancellor to "fewer than ten and more than two" according to a spokeswoman. Beyond that, they're not saying much about timing or names. Among the candidates: Former House Speaker Pete Laney, former Texas Education Commissioner and Tech Vice Chancellor Mike Moses, and former congressman and Texas Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance.

After 12 years at Consumers Union, Rafael Ayuso is moving to AARP-Texas as communications manager.

Two more ERCOT officials have been sentenced for their part in a scam that had the agency paying shell companies they controlled for services that were never rendered. James Uranga got seven years in prison and was told to pay $505,000 in restitution. Kenneth Shoquist was sentenced to eight years in prison and $120,000 in restitution. Uranga was director of IT operations and security. Shoquist was the agency's chief information officer.

Red Oak Mayor Ron Bryce, who's also an M.D., will join the Texas Physician Assistant Board. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to a term that runs through January 2009... the Guv named William Wayne "Rusty" Ballard of Waxahachie to the Texas Credit Union Commission. He's a securities dealer... Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer of Spring is Perry's pick for a spot on the Nursing Facility Administrators Advisory Committee, which advises state regulators on nursing facility administration... He reappointed former San Antonio Mayor Bill Thornton, a dentist, as presiding officer of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority... and he named Robert Shepard, an American Airlines pilot from Weatherford, to the North Texas Tollway Authority Board of Directors.

Quotes of the Week

Republican Senate candidate Dan Patrick, in a discussion about whether the Cy-Fair ISD should have spent money on a new sports facility, quoted in Houston Community Newspapers: "Well, I think I'm right because the majority of people in this district voted for me."

Harris County Constable Bill Bailey at the Texas Association of Counties convention: "I am not fond of the press, because of my great love for the truth."

Fort Bend County Republican Party Chairman Gary Gillen, in a letter urging write-in candidates in CD-22 to skip a closed-door meeting of Republicans to choose a favorite candidate to run for Tom DeLay's seat: "In my opinion, the Republican Party leadership in Austin has chosen to organize local Republicans into a secret, exclusionary process that only reinforces the perception of a backroom deal and the perception that we have something to hide."

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on immigration hearings in the state's largest city: ''This, in my opinion, revolves around the November elections and the people in the interior being sold a bill of goods. 'You've never seen a terrorist come out of Mexico."

State Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus Christi, dissing his opponent, Democrat Juan Garcia, in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times: "He's not a fighter pilot. He never flew jets, he flew P-3s. He is not a fighter pilot even though he takes his picture behind a jet."

Karnes County Judge Alger Kendall, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News after federal judges moved the county from one congressional district to another — the third move since 2000: "Some call us the redheaded stepchild. To me, it's more like the kid who gets picked last for the baseball team. It makes you feel like we're not all that important."

Robert Kosub of St. Hedwig, telling The Dallas Morning News why he's supporting Carole Keeton Strayhorn in the governor's race: "She's just the lesser of, well, however many evils there are out there."

Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 9, 21 August 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2006 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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